Culture

The Seven Greatest Video Games Of 2014

2014 has been a particularly messy year for those in the gaming industry. Let's celebrate the high points.

Videogames aren’t a bad thing. Nor are they a marginalised form of entertainment. They are, in fact, the tip of an iceberg which sinks, wrecks and fustigates expectations, box office records, marriages and artistic conventions. They are one of the newest, boldest, grimiest artforms out there, and right now they’re transitioning into something truly bizarre.

2014 has been a particularly messy year for us in the video game industry. If being a teenager is defined by making ugly, well-intentioned fumbling grasps towards noble behaviour whilst simultaneously making grotesquely ignorant, bigoted, myopic gestures which violently undermine said noble behaviour, then my god, we’re elbow-deep in video game puberty, people.

I resent the term ‘gamer’, as I resent people who define themselves solely by what they do for fun. But I think it’s safe to say most of us game to some extent. Perhaps you numbly swat at digital gemstones on the tram each morning. Maybe you enjoy aggressive rounds of Mario Kart with your friends. Or perhaps you spend ten hours a day killing orcs with fully dilated pupils and a ring of Dorito crumbs peppering the perimeter of your lips like the salt on the rim of a sun-deprived margarita.

Whatever your poison, I’ve spent the better part of the year pouring over every game released (with very few exceptions), and have hand-picked the best of the best. Consider this a mixtape. I’ve even given each one a category explaining what it’s best at, meaning you’ll know pretty quickly what is and isn’t your particular cup of tea.

If you haven’t kept up with video games this year, here’s your time-saving list of the absolute best.

Best Comedy: South Park: The Stick of Truth

Matt Stone and Trey Parker have created pretty much the perfect South Park game. Imagine, if you will, being dumped into a twelve-hour long episode of South Park. It’s a deft fusion of fantasy, turn-based ’90s RPGs (think old school Final Fantasy titles, or Chrono Trigger), combined with balls-to-the-wall South Park humor. You play as the new kid in town, and because it’s unfeasible for you to talk in your own voice, people constantly play off the fact that you’re weirdly mute.

Here’s some actual gameplay footage. That’s right: the ingame graphics are all South Park graphics.

If you’re still not completely sold, you’re probably not a South Park fan. But if you are one, this is at once accessible and blithely unwilling to hold back; there is, in fact, an anal-probing scene so horrific that we here in Australia received a censored version of the game, with that part cut out. They also cut out an abortion sequence. Which might have been a wise decision, really.

Best Horror: Alien Isolation

Are you a fan of the Alien films? Do you enjoy confined spaces? Are you into anything that has a tendency to leap at your face, lay eggs in your stomach and explode out of you in a shower of viscera whilst your co-workers look on, horrified?

Well then, two pieces of advice: befriend a good pharmacist, and then grab Alien Isolation. In a frankly astounding twist of fate, an official sequel (or prequel, really) to the Alien films has been made as a survival horror game. You step into the shoes of Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen (Sigourney Weaver), as you try and track down the black box flight recorder from the Nostromo. Spoiler alert: shit goes south.

Because Amanda is an engineer, not a soldier, her attempt to survive what happens aboard the space station Sevastapol isn’t combat-based. She — meaning you — has to run, hide, hold her breath, and use various tools to mess with security systems and the like.

The attention to detail is staggering; there’s a faint ’80s VHS finish to everything, the score is haunting, and all the tech is influenced directly by the first Alien film. You can, and will, crap yourself with fear. And if that doesn’t sound enticing, the next game on our list might appeal you.

Best Party Game: Mario Kart 8

If you enjoy swearing your tits off whilst flinging heat-seeking tortoise shells at motorists, then Mario Kart is for you.

The latest iteration of this iconic racing game once again illustrates why the series is so damned enjoyable: it’s about driving, but really, it’s more about precision dodgem cars, barrelling through hallucinogen-fuelled dreamscapes.

The score was done by a live band, replete with pumping horns, driving bass and soaring strings; the courses are labyrinthine and charming, and playing against friends is exhilarating. I recommend wearing a helmet, though. After beating a room full of drunken revellers I had a TV remote thrown at my temple.

Most Challenging Game: Dark Souls 2

Want something more challenging? Dark Souls 2 is spoken about in hushed, reverent whispers by fans of games that tax you to near breaking point. Remember in Batman Begins, where Bruce has a phobia of bats, so he sort of just takes his butler and stands in the middle of a shitload of bats? And he’s all like, YES. I AM THE BAT. And his butler is all like, I’ll get a towel, you have bat all over you? Yeah. Dark Souls 2 is like that: if you’re scared of it’s insane combat, brutal learning curve and punishing mechanics, you sort of just have to grab your butler and dive on in.

It’s a sequel, but doesn’t require you having played Dark Souls — although I still think the first instalment isn’t just better, but is one of the best games ever made.

Let me sum up this grim fantasy gauntlet in one gruesome image: I was stalking through a corridor, with very poor health, clutching a massive broadsword in both hands. Suddenly, a mummy filled with rancid fumes, set to detonate, charged at me in the confined space. If I struck it with my sword, it wouldn’t explode, and I’d be able to reach the next bonfire, meaning I could save a game and heal up. I raised my sword, and… clunk. It struck the low ceiling. My character was stunned by the impact, and the mummy closed in and ruptured, killing me instantly.

It wasn’t the mummy’s fault; it was mine. When you die in Dark Souls, it’s on you.

Best Soundtrack: Transistor

Transistor is a noirish game about a lounge singer in a cyberpunk cityscape, trying to bring down a cabal of corrupt, manipulative men and women who may or may not be responsible for a gruesome murder. She is accompanied by a talking sword, and soon finds herself flung into one of the most stylish mysteries ever rendered in a video game.

The score is by composer Darren Korb, and he’s done a superb job; when shifting in and out of combat, the music shifts with you, dropping out certain layers of instruments and subbing in more washed-out vocals. You can hear some of it in the trailer.

For me, the game and the soundtrack go hand in hand. At times it’s like a dreamy, heartbreaking interactive album. Highly recommended.

Best Art Design: Broken Age

Ever heard of Full Throttle? Grim Fandango? Psychonauts?

These are all games that Tim Schafer made; he also co-created Monkey Island 1 and 2, as well as Day of the Tentacle. He’s basically a genius, but Broken Age — which he funded partly through Kickstarter — is the first time he’s touched the point-and-click genre since Grim Fandango.

Point-and-click is an odd genre, rarely done anymore and seldom done well, but Broken Age is a near-flawless act of sincere, pure storytelling. It also utilises a rather brilliant, meandering mechanic: dual protagonists, separated by time and space, who you can switch between at will.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra did wonderful work on the score, and the voice acting is top notch. But the artwork used in the game is what drove me to truly love Broken Age; it’s like traipsing through a series of watercolor paintings. Everything drifts and undulates, with visuals that perfectly suit the story being told. Also, it might have my favourite cliffhanger ending of any game released this year.

And now, without further ado…

Game of the Year: Dragon Age: Inquisition

Dragon Age: Inquisition is the best game of 2014 for many, many reasons. Let’s start with the easy ones, though.

It’s the third instalment in a trilogy of Tolkeinesque fantasy games which manage to use all the standard fantasy tropes – elves, dwarves, dragons, perfectly chiselled cheekbones – yet somehow still innovate. In the Dragon Age universe, there’s a Jesus figure, but it’s basically Joan of Arc. Elves aren’t ethereal and ageless, they’re mortal, and the few that haven’t been wiped out by religious fanatics live in slums or in tiny, angry, sexy clatches in filthy remnants of the woods. Dwarves have agoraphobia. The Maker (the God of the Dragon Age world) is notably absent, unless he’s unleashing horrors upon all of creation and then sodding off for an eternity.

It’s a horrific world filled with political intrigue which would make George R.R. Martin proud, and it does so without the slightest whiff of incest.

But what makes Inquisition so special, apart from the fact that it combines the deft writing and top-notch characters of the best games around with the size and scope of Skyrim, is that it drives a nail right into the heart of the worst of the video game scene.

When Dragon Age 2 came out, and featured options within it for same-sex romance, a vocal contingent of video game fans spewed torrents of hateful shit directly in the developer Bioware’s direction (though they didn’t, it should be noted, take issue with the fact that in Dragon Age, two women could romance each other). Bioware stuck to their guns, stating that people should grow the hell up — and in Inquisition, they threw down this gauntlet particularly hard.

There are eight romance options in this game. Two straight, two bisexual, two gay, and two who have very specific race and gender preferences. And whilst this might not seem like a big deal, it absolutely is. In the face of a barrage of whining from people who feel threatened and uncomfortable that a vilified, oppressed group such as the LGBTI community is finally being given a degree of equality and consideration in games, Bioware are taking a stand.

In a fantasy game, rife with fantastic, impossible things, why the hell is it outside the realm of feasibility for you to roleplay as someone who isn’t a completely close-minded arsehole?

The game also features a beautifully rendered transgender character, a litany of well-written and handled gay relationships, a vivid portrayal of the pain of coming out, and a general respect for the fact that this is two thousand and fucking fourteen. There’ll be LGBTI kids growing up playing this game, seeing people of their sexual orientation kicking ass and taking names. And there’ll be straight kids experiencing the same thing. Seeing as how most of our role models when we’re growing up are, frankly, fictional, I think it’s a stunningly huge blow to bigotry to embed such a positive message in such a blindingly terrific game.

There are hundreds of reasons I love Dragon Age Inquisition: its commitment to fleshing out a story, the artwork, even the exposed chest-hair of a certain dwarven hero. The stunning worldbuilding, the geography, the thousands of loving, painstaking nods to the previous games. But it’s Bioware’s willingness to be brave and considerate that I love the most.

Paul Verhoeven hosts the gaming show Steam Punks on ABC3. He also writes for TheVine, is a presenter on Triple J, and tweets from@PaulVerhoeven